Language is powerful. It has the ability to make us cry or move us to action in an instant. A few words, when written out and written on paper or pumped into our eyeballs on a screen can inspire a generation or topple a government. And because the cost of “printing” those words has gone through the floor, we no longer understand what they are capable of, what we are capable of when we use words to threaten or advocate violence.
A tweet is ephemeral. A text takes almost no thought whatsoever. A message posted to a private facebook group or the local Nextdoor community is habitual. Even, a letter sent to someone’s house after they have been doxxed is barely harder after you have been given the words to say by “your team.” We may not be inoculating ourselves to deadly viruses at the rate that will allow us to leave them behind, but we are all inoculated to language. It is around us in every moment, barely registering. Written language is water.
It is just that some of it has been poisoned.
Even though these poisoned words may cost us nothing, we must remember that they can cost others everything.
- Can make others feel unsafe where they work.
- Can normalize lynching.
- Can make outside influence more important than local preference.
- Can build a culture of harassment and abuse.
And to what end?
What does winning look like for those who are advocating violence? Is it to live in a society where there are only those who believe as you do? Is it to have a single vision of education, politics, and the social order?
It seems now that we have ratcheted up the stakes so high that every message sent is kill or be killed. But, that isn’t all that language is for. We can speak to inspire, to create, or to empower. We can write to create opportunities for ourselves and others. We can entertain or wonder aloud. And yes, we can also dissent.
But violence is not dissent. It is not speech of any kind. In fact, it is the limiting of speech. It is making sure that others know that speech is meaningless. At least that is what it has become. For if the words you write into the little Facebook field don’t mean anything, you can say whatever you want and feel no remorse for death threats. You can keep encouraging one another to feel more and more aggrieved so that you feel justified in posting noose iconography. You can make others feel unwelcome and unsafe.
But, this is not where it ends. When words lose their meaning, violence is all we have left. And even if it isn’t dissent, it is still incredibly scary. For those of us for whom words still have meaning, we know what is coming. While it may have been true once that the pen was mightier than the sword, by making the pen impotent many feel as though the sword is all they have left.